A federal judge today ordered the Vermont Attorney General's Office to release records to a woman who claims in a lawsuit that prison guards forcibly stripped her naked, then detained her without clothing for 12 hours.
Michelle Anzovino, who had been arrested on misdemeanor charges, refused to be strip-searched when she was brought to Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield to sober up in June 2013, according to court records.
Four prison guards, including three men, pinned her to the ground, stripped off her pants and underpants and cut her shirt and bra off her body, she alleges in a lawsuit. They gave her a thin plastic sheet that she struggled to keep on her body. Anzovino, a former Dover resident, claims she sat in a prison cell for 12 hours, in view of male detainees, while guards rejected her pleas for clothing. She also says she suffered minor physical injuries.
"There was no legitimate or necessary law-enforcement or safety objective to stripping [Anzovino] of her clothing and forcing her to remain unclothed during her time at the facility," her attorney, Theodore Kramer, wrote in a lawsuit filed last year. "At no time during [Anzovino's] detention did [she] become violent or pose any threat to herself, the defendant officers, or any other individuals."
Anzovino's lawsuit includes nine claims, including unreasonable search and false imprisonment, and seeks unspecified monetary damages. The defendants include Department of Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito, prison superintendent P. Mark Potanas and six guards.
Anzovino was arrested after a dispute with a tenant at a property she owned in Dover. A judge ordered her held in prison until her blood-alcohol content dropped to 0.04, but prison guards kept her hours longer than necessary, according to the lawsuit.
During a hearing this morning in U.S. District Court in Burlington, Kramer said that important videotape evidence of the event could have been "deliberately destroyed" by prison officials. Recordings of guards confronting and stripping Anzovino have been turned over. But footage of Anzovino inside her cell is missing, lawyers said.
Kramer sent Potanas a letter just days after the June 2013 incident, asking that "all video/audio evidence of her strip search and detention be preserved."
"What happened to it?'" Kramer asked in court. "Who destroyed it? Was it destroyed inadvertently or was it destroyed deliberately? If it was destroyed deliberately, under whose authority was it destroyed?"
Assistant Vermont Attorney General Kate Gallagher, who represents the guards, said she believed the video had been deleted because prison officials thought they needed to preserve only footage of Anzovino being stripped. "I believe the answer is going to be, because they thought that's what they were supposed to do," Gallagher said. "They were keeping what they thought was important and relevant ... That's unfortunate."
"If they don't have it, they can't produce it," Judge John Conroy said.
Prosecutors had rejected Kramer's requests to turn over other evidence, leading to the hearing. Conroy ordered Gallagher to turn over several items to Kramer, including guards' disciplinary files, any prior lawsuits filed against the guards and records of previous strip searches in the prison.
Southern State Correctional Facility is mostly for male inmates, though some females detained in the area are brought in immediately after their arrests.
Anzovino did not appear in court yesterday. In a brief interview, Kramer said that she remains "upset and distraught at what happened." He declined further comment.